Geoff asks his father, Steve Davis, to make him some popcorn while in their Palo Alto backyard on Nov. 16, 2022. Photo by Magali Gauthier.Posted November 18, 2022
Building friendships where schools and community organizations leave off
Volunteer buddies provide social support for children, youth and young adults with special needs
by Emily Margaretten / Palo Alto Weekly
Nine-year-old Geoff doesn't talk much; he has difficulty communicating verbally. But his eagerness to go to camp this past summer was palpable to his father, Steve Davis. Every morning Geoff would place his father's sandals right next to his feet, a clear sign to get going at 7:30 a.m., two hours before camp actually started.
"He was ready to go to camp," Davis laughed. "He was very, very excited about it. In fact, that's probably the first time he has ever kind of specifically affirmatively expressed something like that. ... Whenever he communicates something very strongly and clearly that he really likes something, it's a special occasion, and I'll take it."
Summer camp is just one of 11 support service programs offered by Bay Area Friendship Circle, a Palo Alto nonprofit organization committed to providing an inclusive environment for children, teens and young adults with special needs between the ages of 3 and 30 years. Friendship Circle started 19 years ago, initially to help Jewish families, Executive Director and Rabbi Ezzy Shusterman said. But as its popularity grew, it opened up to all people. Today the organization serves over 100 families with about 30% coming from Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and the rest from surrounding cities.
"Our philosophy is that we pick up where schools and community organizations leave off," Shusterman said. "A lot of kids may go to church; they may go to synagogue; they may go to public school or somewhere else — but when that's over, they're kind of left alone. And we pick up, and we're there."
For Davis, Friendship Circle offers something that most other organizations do not: the chance for his autistic son to be a kid. Between school and several hours of therapy every day, Geoff has very little free time to play.
"Friendship Circle is a break from school," Program Director Lauren Levinson said, describing what she often tells new families. "It's a break from therapy; it's a place for the kids to come in, be themselves and have a fun time."
Friendship Circle received $5,000 from the Palo Alto Weekly Annual Holiday Fund this year, helping it restart some of its most popular activities, like an ice-skating day, sports day and movie day. Because of COVID-19, these activities did not happen in 2020 and 2021. The grant also helped cover safety supplies, like masks, which were necessary for returning to in-person programs.
Participants of Friendship Circle particularly missed connecting with their buddies during the pandemic. Every program pairs a participant with a teenage volunteer who provides social support and friendship. Geoff met Josh Mandel, a 19-year-old De Anza College student, at winter camp last year, and they have been buddies ever since.
Twice a month Geoff and Mandel take part in Sunday Circle, a two-hour program that offers art, music and movement activities for children and youth between the ages of 5 and 20 years. The program, which accommodates up to 45 participants, helps kids interact with each other in a supportive environment.
"It's a great way for Geoff to get social time with other people and kids, which is something that I think if you're not disabled, you kind of take for granted," Davis said.
These social interactions extend to parents as well.
"It's always challenging for parents of kids with disabilities to find people to connect with that they can talk about stuff," Davis said. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with schools, state agencies and health insurance.
"It's like this whole set of systems, and none of them work very well," Davis continued. "So, there's a lot of communication and mutual support and sharing this folklore," with parents telling each other, "This is kind of how you get things done."
Recognizing the importance of these connections, Friendship Circle developed a family support group for parents, grandparents and adult siblings. It also designed a Kidz Circle program for younger children, 3 and 4 years old, which is an age when parents often receive a diagnosis about their child and have a lot of questions about what to expect.
But even for families with older children, Friendship Circle is an invaluable resource. Meg Edgett's 10-year-old daughter recently joined Sunday Circle, looking to form friendships with other children like herself. She is the only child with Down syndrome in her Hillsborough school district, a surprising situation for Edgett given that Down syndrome occurs in about 1 in every 700 babies born in the United States.
"We're a small enough community that we're still looking for ways to connect," Edgett said.
Friendship Circle, meanwhile, is at capacity; many of its programs are full with waitlists. Since the easing of pandemic restrictions, enrollment is at an all-time high, Levinson said, in part because not many programs offer regular one-to-one support, as seen with the buddy system.
"There's not a ton of programs for kids with more serious disabilities," Davis confirmed. "This one is a real asset. People come from all over the Bay Area to participate, families who have kids with disabilities as well as people volunteering to help, which is cool."